I write this soon after the election, and like everyone else I’m still reeling from the unexpected result (certainly not happily, though I can’t fully share in the doomsday mood prevailing here in the depths of bluest Massachusetts). As a sociologist I’m trying hard to understand what has happened, and since my shtick is religion, that is my focus. It’s early in the game, and it might be prudent not to say anything at this point. But to paraphrase what Donald Trump said the other day to an African-American church meeting: “What do I have to lose?”
The Pew Research Center in Washington is the most reliable source of survey data on religion. I imagine that its researchers were already crunching out data in the wee hours on November 9. Some things we already know quite clearly. The figure that I’m fixated on is that 81 percent of self-identified white Evangelicals voted for Trump, as against 11 percent for Hillary Clinton. This is more than voted for Mitt Romney, who, though belonging to the rather suspect Mormon faith, was a paragon of born-again virtue as compared to the lecherous Donald. Not surprisingly, African-American and Latino Evangelicals went big for Hillary. It seems likely as of now that the combined votes of white Evangelicals, white conservative Catholics, and Mormons tipped the balance in favor of Trump. Also not surprisingly, 71 percent of Jews, long a loyal Democratic demographic, voted for Clinton (with the interesting exception of Boro Park in Brooklyn, heavily populated by observant Orthodox with Republican inclinations). Also interesting: 62 percent of so-called “nones” (those who say “none” when asked about their religious affiliation) voted for Clinton. The Evangelical leadership was more split than the Evangelical populace. Trump had made a big effort to persuade the leadership that, beneath the locker-room bravado, he was really a born-again Christian (perhaps a repentant one?—Evangelicals are prone to forgive repentant sinners). That effort was quite successful, more so than Clinton’s even less plausible attempt to present herself as a devout United Methodist (whatever that is). Prominent Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell endorsed Trump and some of them apparently sat up with him on election night (perhaps to prevent him from sending out embarrassing tweets at three a.m.?). Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, went so far as to assert that God directly intervened to cause Trump’s victory. There were exceptions, such as Russell Moore, the widely respected head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Long before the final Trump victory both the mainstream media and the pundits had perceived the importance of class in the election (as, by the way, it also is in Europe!), but they were less clear how Evangelicals related to the class factor, as against the obvious relevance of Evangelical morality (most of it focused on issues south of the navel). One advantage of a sociological perspective is that it draws attention to class—not just class interests but class culture. Progressives are so fixated on race and gender that they don’t quite see class. Barack Obama is hailed as the first black President and Hillary Clinton, if she had won, as the first woman President. To be sure, this is quite correct. I think that it is also important that Obama was the first President since Woodrow Wilson to have been on the faculty of an elite university, and that Clinton was a graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School. By contrast Trump will be the first President who bragged about the size of his penis on national television. High school graduates hopelessly stuck in mailrooms of corporate offices resentfully refer to their betters as “the suits.” Obama and (even more visibly) Clinton are “suits.” Trump of course wears suits, but also a baseball cap, the favored headgear of the American working class. He boasts of being able to get any woman he wants, and he descends from the sky in an airplane emblazoned with his name—exactly the Superman which all the frustrated mail room boys would like to be. And this same superior being suggests that he can help them to get there. The ultimate irony of the Trump ascendancy is that “the losers” he despises are the fans who applaud him.
Back to Evangelicals: Until recently most Evangelicals were relatively poor and less educated, and concentrated in the less developed regions of the country. This has changed in recent years. Many Evangelicals have undergone upward mobility (probably facilitated by their continuing adherence to the “Protestant ethic”) and higher education. The Evangelical heartland, the Bible Belt, now overlaps with the economically dynamic Sun Belt. Something new has appeared, a self-consciously Evangelical intelligentsia, its origins in the network of Evangelical educational institutions, but now spilling over into mainstream universities. Examples are widely respected scholars like the historian Mark Noll and the philosopher Alvin Platinga—respectively, from the faculties of Wheaton College and Calvin College, both now having landed at Notre Dame (thus incidentally enhancing the politically significant alliance between Evangelicals and conservative Catholics). But collective perceptions do not disappear quickly. Thus, while the old perception of economically and educationally backward Evangelicals is no longer empirically validated, it lingers on. Let me put it this way: Many Evangelicals now wear suits and have respectable college degrees, but they are still perceived as wearing baseball caps—and resentfully so perceive themselves.
My hypothesis (I hope that the busy nose counters at the Pew Research Center will soon test it empirically): Evangelicals who voted for Trump fall into two groups: those who are primarily motivated by the moral positions of their faith, and those who have experienced the contempt of the “suits” and bitterly resent it. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have provided prototypical expressions of this contempt: During the 2008 campaign Obama slipped out this description of people in economically deprived small towns: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And during the just-concluded presidential campaign Clinton described Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables.” It is important to understand that being despised as cultural “losers” can be as enraging as being economically on the losing side. J.D. Vance has provided an eloquent portrayal of a culture of economic and spiritual defeat in his new book Hillbilly Elegy. He writes about Appalachia, but what he describes applies to other urban as well as rural areas left behind in the alleged march of progress.
The Evangelical sense of marginalization can be conveniently dated—1925. Until then Evangelical Protestantism was at the core of American culture. Think of the role it played in the anti-slavery and temperance movements. Between 1910 and 1915 a series of four books was published under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The term “fundamentalism” derives from this title—today a pejorative term applied to all kinds of religious extremes. The aforementioned books were hardly extreme. They came out of the heart of mainline Protestantism, which today would be called Evangelical. Many of the authors were orthodox Presbyterians, then-centered at Princeton Theological Seminary, which in the 1920s split into an orthodox Calvinist and a “modernist” faculty. What happened in 1925 was a watershed in the history of American Evangelicalism—the so-called “monkey trial.”
Under the influence of a conservative Protestant/Evangelical lobby the state of Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. John Scopes, a school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was charged with having violated the law. The trial turned into a celebrity event. William Jennings Bryan, former presidential candidate and prominent Evangelical leader, volunteered to act for the prosecution, and the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. The trial had virtually nothing to do with the offence in question (which was not in doubt). Bryan used it to defend his literal understanding of the Bible, Darrow to make Bryan ridiculous. In this he succeeded, reducing Bryan to petulant babbling. Both men were propagandists for two forms of “fundamentalism,” a primitive view of the Bible against a primitive view of science. Unfortunately for Bryan’s reputation, the brilliant satirist H.L. Mencken covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun. His account was widely reprinted and read. He was contemptuous not only of Bryan but of Christianity and of the local people (he called them “yokels”). The event had an enormous effect on American Evangelicals. It demoralized them, making them feel marginalized in a hostile environment. The result was an Evangelical subculture, turned inward and defensive in its relation to the outside society. Mark Noll sums this up in the title of one of his books, The Closing of the Evangelical Mind. This began to change in the 1980s, encouraged by the Reagan Administration. Enough remains for a majority of Evangelicals to feel besieged and open to Trump’s appeal.
As the Trump Administration unfolds, it will surely affect the peculiar world of American Evangelicalism. I’m neither temperamentally nor philosophically inclined toward optimism. When it comes to Trump, it is not difficult to imagine any number of disastrous scenarios for the country and for the world, by comparison with which the future of American Evangelicalism (which is not my theological home) would not be on the top of my concerns. However, there is a curious ray of hope that showed up in the first hours after the Trump victory was announced and he spoke to the nation. With any politician one must worry about his ideology or his interests. I doubt if Trump has any ideology except what serves at the moment, and his main interest is to exercise power, which now is rather secure. One must worry about his monumental ego and (nevertheless) its apparent fragility. But, as I listened to him (not at three a.m. but on television re-broadcasts a few hours later), I was trying to imagine what he must feel now—presumably a sense of immense triumph, self-validation, the prospect of being on the verge of becoming an historic statesman. There was none of the nuttiness of the campaign, only graciousness and benevolence. In fact, he sounded like Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg on the eve of the Union victory in the Civil War—“binding the wounds” (he actually used these words)—“with malice toward none” (he implied them). If Trump wants to play at being Lincoln, he may now find the self-confidence to accept competent advice (beyond his immediate family). In other words, one might bet on his ego.